TIME FOR CZECH-IN!
Jagr makes debut as Flames defeat Kings
LOS ANGELES — While half of the Calgary Flames took shots on Eddie Lack, the other half worked on small-area drills, passing between each other on Tuesday at the L.A. Kings’ practice facility in El Segundo.
And fully content on doing his own thing — 24 seasons in the National Hockey League will do that to you — Jaromir Jagr skated between the blueline and centre line.
Back and forth with the puck. Stops and starts. Over and over. Then, the 45-year-old right winger had an extended chat with Glen Gulutzan.
“Lots of chats,” said the Flames head coach with a smile. “And you know what? You learn every time you chat with him. When you have a guy that’s played that long and that many games, he knows where he’s at.”
Where he was at, on Wednesday, was game ready.
At least in his own mind, and that’s exactly what Gulutzan and Jagr were discussing Tuesday.
“We just talked about his minutes,” Gulutzan explained, regarding the tete-a-tete. “Just from seeing him before, I said, ’To me, you look better and better each day.’“Remember, Jagr has a high level.
“His hands, his timing ... all of that looked better to me. He felt that, too. Our chat was about minutes, and the next progression for him is getting some game time.”
Of course, that happened Wednesday night in downtown L.A. at the Staples Center when he made his Flames debut and played first-regular season game with a Canadian-based National Hockey League team.
It was an exciting night for everyone in Calgary — and in the Flames dressing room, for that matter.
Since his arrival from the Czech Republic last week, Jagr has been skating diligently both on his own (sometimes well
after practice has ended) and with the Flames’ third line of Kris Versteeg and Sam Bennett.
He’s been a teacher, too, in the short time he’s been with the club. Each skate, he’s seen having a positional chat with his teammates.
“He talks to you and lets you know,” Versteeg said. “That’s what it’s going to take. He hasn’t played in a long time, and to understand where you are positionally and strengths as quickly as possible, that’s big.
“I’m excited to see him in a couple of weeks when he really becomes comfortable . . . but, for now, he still looks great.”
Gulutzan was planning on managing the future Hockey Hall-of-Famer’s ice-time Wednesday night, something that he’s no stranger to having coached Jagr briefly with the Dallas Stars.
Jagr, speaking quietly on Wednesday in the corner of the visitors’ dressing room at the Staples Center next to stall-mate and fellow Czech Michael Frolik, was intent on downplaying the whole ordeal.
“Of course it’s been a long time since I’ve played my last game,” said Jagr. “It’s going to be different. I care a lot, so I’m going to play the best I can play. It’s not going to be very good. But hopefully, (after playing) some games, it’ll be better.”
The build-up, at least to him skating in a Flames jersey for real, has been drawnout. Each day, Gulutzan indicated there was a “plan” in place for Jagr’s debut.
All along, Gulutzan said the player himself would dictate when he was ready.
And despite not playing a meaningful game since April 9 in Washington while with the Florida Panthers, expectations were high.
“Always the highest,” Jagr said, of his own personal standard. “It might be different, but I always want to perform at a high level ...
“But it’s not about me. It’s about the team and my teammates. I don’t want to be there just to be there. I want to make them better.”
That’s exactly why Flames general manager Brad Treliving brought in the oldest active player in the NHL — because he believes Jagr will make them better.
The fifth-overall selection of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft finished fourth in team scoring last year with the Panthers, netting 16 goals and 30 assists in 82 games. Those were, of course, added to his staggering career stat-line of 765 goals and 1,149 assists.
The only players on the Flames roster who scored more points than Jagr’s 46 in 2016-17 were four members of the team’s top two forward lines and one defenceman — Matthew Tkachuk (48), Dougie Hamilton (50), Mikael Backlund (53), Sean Monahan (58) and Johnny Gaudreau (61).
Jagr is second on the NHL’s all-time scoring list behind Wayne Gretzky with 1,914 points and is chasing Gordie Howe (1,767) for all-time games played.
After Wednesday’s game, he’s played 1,712 and needs just 56 more to pass Howe’s record.
Not bad for a guy who’ll turn 46 on Feb. 15.
“He hasn’t had a training camp — he hasn’t been in a game atmosphere in probably five or six months now or whatever it’s been,” pointed out Versteeg. “Like he said, he’s going to take time getting used to everyone and getting used to the players. I mean ... practices only do so much. It’ll be more about game situations, and I think as the games keep going and progressing, you’re going to see it get a lot better as it goes.”